Unveiling Smelling Salts: What’s Inside, How They Work, and Potential Dangers


John Saad

Perhaps you recall those old movies that were in black and white, where the woman in trouble faints and then wakes up after smelling some salts. Or when Rocky Balboa takes a deep breath to keep fighting after getting hit in the face multiple times. Perhaps you have seen people on social media having a good laugh while playing with smelling salts. Or filmed a professional athlete smelling a strong substance.

Smelling salts have been used since the Middle Ages, and they are becoming popular again nowadays. However, this did cause some surprise and curiosity.

“In the past, people have used smelling salts to wake someone up after they faint,” says Dr. Elizabeth Rainbolt, a family medicine physician. “But they are not used much in medical practice anymore.” Nowadays, they are being sold commercially and used by some people as a type of stimulant before working out.

Supplement stores and online retailers are selling smelling salts as a way to boost energy and improve performance. They claim to help improve your performance or give you a boost of energy and strength. But what is inside that bottle? What effects does it have on your body? Dr. Rainbolt explains the harmful truth about smelling salts.

What are Smelling Salts?

Smelling salts are powders or packets that come in bottles and contain a strong amount of ammonia and other chemicals. Ammonia is commonly used in things like fertilizer and cleaning products. If there’s one thing you probably know about ammonia, it’s that its smell is very strong and can make you feel dizzy or faint. It smells like old urine. But even worse.

“Ammonia can cause irritation,” Dr. Rainbolt explains. “It bothers your breathing tubes and your organs responsible for breathing.” When you inhale, you automatically take a deep breath. It doesn’t make you feel high, but the increase in oxygen stimulates your sympathetic nervous system and can make you feel energized.

The reaction from your nervous system is commonly known as a “stress response” or “fight-or-flight mode.” When you feel a rush of adrenaline and other hormones, it means your body is getting ready for a fight.

The fight-or-flight response is a natural reaction in your body that helps you defend against predators. However, nowadays, some individuals are using smelling salts to trigger the stress response rush for less important competitions. People use that burst of energy to try to run faster, lift heavier weights, or simply get through another afternoon at work.

How Smelling Salts Work?

When you put smelling salts under your nose, the fumes from ammonia irritate the inside of your nose. When you faint, your body automatically makes you take deep breaths to clear your nose.

When the extra oxygen reaches your brain, your body’s sympathetic nervous system reacts with a “fight or flight” response, releasing the hormone adrenaline throughout your body. This device can help wake you up if you have fainted, and it may also make you feel more alert for a short period of time.

Dosage and Uses

In the United States, smelling salts are only approved by the FDA for preventing or treating fainting. The amount, frequency, and duration of use depend on the purpose of using them and the potency of the product. Make sure to carefully follow the recommendations from your doctor and the directions on the package.

To use most smelling salts, hold the product at least 4-6 inches away from the person’s nose who is being treated. This is done to prevent irritation of the nasal passages. To wake up or stop feeling faint, they should breathe in the vapor slowly.


Storing smelling salts is quite simple. Store them in a closed container at room temperature and keep them away from moisture.

Are Smelling Salts Safe to Use?

Sniffing smelling salts won’t necessarily cause long-term damage to your nose. They are not physically addictive. And they probably won’t cause you to go to the emergency room.

Unveiling Smelling Salts

However, it is important to note that sniffing ammonia capsules is also not a healthy choice. Ammonia is toxic. Depending on an external stimulus to function throughout the day or to motivate yourself can lead to a dangerous path of trying addictive substances. Dr. Rainbolt explains why smelling salts are not the best way to improve performance.

Intense Reactions

Smelling salts have an unpleasant smell, to say the least. It’s like smelling the worst candle in the aisle. (You know the one.) But many times more.

Your body will most likely have a natural physical response to the irritation. You may experience a sneeze. Coughing frequently. Or if you have difficulty breathing. For individuals who have conditions such as asthma or other breathing or lung conditions, their reaction to certain triggers may be more severe.

In addition, the irritation can make you suddenly jerk your head. It’s like when you suddenly sneeze without expecting it. You can’t help but express it. If you have had a neck or back injury, any involuntary movement can make the damage worse.

The Real Problem

According to Dr. Rainbolt, one of the main disadvantages of smelling salts is that they can hide a serious injury. Getting hurt is common in sports where players come into physical contact with each other. Athletes wear protective gear and have concussion protocols in place for a very important reason. Using smelling salts can hide the pain and symptoms of injuries, which can prevent athletes from receiving the necessary medical attention.

You may have heard stories about people who get shot or trapped under rubble and don’t realize they’re injured until after the surge of adrenaline subsides. Using smelling salts can have the same effect. The surge of fight-or-flight hormones can delay the feeling of pain until later. Not getting medical treatment promptly can be risky.

Picture a situation where a quarterback is tackled and hits his head, receiving a strong blow from a safety who is much bigger than him. He shakes off whatever is bothering him and then takes some smelling salts from the bench. He starts to feel great because of the adrenaline response. So, he returns to the field. However, if he didn’t have the smelling salts to hide his pain, he might have been more likely to seek medical attention, which he might really need.


Dr. Rainbolt warns that smelling salts can cause chemical burns, which can be dangerous. That is especially true if you bring the bottle or packet too close to your eyes or if it touches your skin. Using smelling salts frequently can result in burns inside your nose. When using smelling salts, make sure to read the label on the package and follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer.

Unproven and Unregulated

Many big sports organizations have rules that prohibit the use of substances that can enhance performance. However, many popular sports organizations such as the NFL, NHL, NBA, and the Olympics permit athletes to use smelling salts.

That’s because, even though manufacturers and fans of smelling salts claim that they provide a performance boost, research has not shown any evidence to support this. Smelling salts are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because they are sold as supplements. So, manufacturers can make bold statements without any scientific evidence to support them.

“According to Dr. Rainbolt, we still need more research to understand the effects of smelling salts on athletic performance,” “Based on the information we have, there are many risks involved with no known benefits.” Therefore, I do not suggest them to my patients. “It’s simply not worth it.”

Potential Benefits of Smelling Salts

Since the 13th century, people have been using smelling salts to help with fainting and feeling lightheaded. Some athletes use smelling salts as a stimulant. Athletes use smelling salts before or during competition to boost their energy and breathing rate, and enhance their alertness, focus, and reaction time.

Unveiling Smelling Salts

Smelling salts are commonly used by football players, hockey players, and powerlifters. Actually, it’s believed that about half of powerlifters use smelling salts. During a competition, athletes will typically use it before two or three lifts, as well as before the last event, the deadlift.

The International Powerlifting Federation permits the use of smelling salts, as long as they are used in private. The World Anti-Doping Agency is responsible for creating lists of banned substances to ensure fair and healthy international competition. Ammonia is not currently on the list of banned substances.

However, there is not much evidence to support the benefits of smelling salts. A study conducted in 2022 examined the effects of smelling salts. The study found that while smelling salts can make a person more alert and improve their perception of physical performance, they do not enhance power, strength, or neuromuscular drive. Researchers have found that while smelling salts can be helpful for psychological stimulation, they are unlikely to enhance performance.

Dangers of Misusing Smelling Salts

The single-dose capsule of low-concentrated ammonia is safe to use as directed. It can be used to revive a person who has fainted or potentially improve athletic performance. But, ammonia is a harmful substance. Smelling salts can be harmful to your health if they are misused, abused, or used too much. Using smelling salts often can lead to lung congestion and skin irritation. It is possible to have permanent damage to the lungs, which could even result in death.

Using smelling salts for a long time can cause olfactory fatigue, which means your ability to smell decreases over time. If you can’t smell ammonia unless you use smelling salts, you might not realize that you’re in a place where you’re being exposed to too much of it. Doing this can seriously harm your nose and lungs, and it could even result in death.

Do Smelling Salts Cause Injury?

Although there have been many reports of the harmful effects of ammonia-based substances when taken in large amounts or inhaled for long periods of time, there have been no reports of any health issues caused by using smelling salts in sports.

The instructions for commercially available smelling salts state that the capsule or solution should be held 10–15 cm away from the patient’s nose. I think this is meant to prevent any strong burning sensation in the nose or mouth that could be caused by breathing in high levels of ammonia. This risk is not new. As Charles Dickens wrote in Hard Times (chapter 16), the character took the precaution of buying a bottle of strong smelling-salts from a chemist’s shop on his way home. “By George!” exclaimed Mr. Bounderby. “If she faints, I will definitely scold her.”

When it comes to sports-related concussions, it’s important to understand that using smelling salts is not a proper replacement for a thorough neurological assessment. Severe head injuries can sometimes seem like minor head injuries at first, and people who are not experienced caregivers may mistakenly think that an initial improvement, which they attribute to smelling salts, is actually hiding the development of more serious problems.

It’s important to understand that smelling salts cause an inhalation reflex, not a movement of the neck. This reflex causes an increase in the rate and depth of breathing. It is possible that holding the salts too close to the nose (less than 10 cm) may cause a neck movement simply because it is irritating. This means that the problem is not with the agent itself, but with how the salts were applied incorrectly.


Smelling salts, a type of stimulant, have been used since the Middle Ages to wake people up after fainting. They contain ammonia and other chemicals, which can cause irritation and irritation to the breathing tubes and organs responsible for breathing. When inhaled, the increased oxygen stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, triggering a “fight or flight” response. This response releases adrenaline, which can help wake up a fainting person and make them feel more alert for a short period of time. Smelling salts are only approved by the FDA for preventing or treating fainting, and their dosage and use depend on the purpose and potency of the product. However, they can cause intense reactions, such as sneezing, coughing, difficulty breathing, and sudden jerking of the head. Smelling salts can also hide serious injuries, which can prevent athletes from receiving necessary medical attention.

Dr. Rainbolt warns against using smelling salts, which can cause chemical burns and cause irritation to the nose. Smelling salts are not regulated by the FDA and are not used by major sports organizations like the NFL, NHL, NBA, and Olympics. While they have been used for fainting and stimulants, there is no evidence to support their benefits. Misuse can lead to lung congestion, skin irritation, and even death. Smelling salts can cause olfactory fatigue, which can lead to serious health issues. They should be held 10-15 cm away from the patient’s nose to prevent burning sensations. Smelling salts should not be a replacement for a thorough neurological assessment, as they cause an inhalation reflex, not a movement of the neck.